VANCOUVER -- Antti Raanta was already well into his first preseason game backing up Henrik Lundqvist before the New York Rangers star spoke to him for the first time that night.
"It was first TV timeout in the first period and he just came to me at the bench and was like, 'It's nothing against you, this is just my style,'" Raanta said with a chuckle. "I think he was worried I thought I did something wrong because I was sitting back, pulling away from him."
No one would blame the Rangers new backup for being standoffish. A lot of goaltenders are given a wide berth as they slip into their own little world of visualization and warmups in the hours before a game, but Lundqvist is well known for the intensity of his pregame preparation.
"On game days he is the most intense guy I have ever seen," said Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin, who played with Lundqvist several times for Sweden in international competitions, including the past three Olympics. "I'd stay away from him. I don't know if that's a rule, but from what I've seen on national teams you tend to stay away from him."
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is trying to relax more during games. (Photo: Getty Images)
Lundqvist doesn't have to apologize for the intensity that has made him one of, if not the NHL's top goaltender over 11 seasons, an Olympic gold medal winner in 2006 and a five-time Vezina Trophy finalist, winning the award as the League's top goalie in 2012.
Lundqvist is consciously trying to dial back his famous intensity this season, however.
"As a mindset just trying to relax a little bit more during the games, going into games," Lundqvist explained. "Over the years I have been extremely intense, and as you get older I feel like I am trying to get less intense and it is helping my game to be more aware, and I think awareness is key for my game, just be aware of all the situations more than anything."
Think of it as a broader focus, allowing a more relaxed Lundqvist to see a bigger picture rather than getting too worked up and running the risk of becoming puck focused.
"When you are really intense you tend to lock in on the puck," he said. "There are so many plays now where it's not really the first play that is going to beat you. It's that pass, it's that rebound, you get surprised. There's a lot of goals you give up because you are surprised. You didn't see that guy or didn't pick someone up. When I play my best my awareness is better, so finding that balance of being intense but at the same time finding a focus that is a little more relaxed."
That relaxed intensity has been attributed to top goalies like Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals because of how powerfully and precisely they play without ever looking like they get too worked up or out of control. Goaltending is a position where trying too hard can sometimes be detrimental, but walking that fine line isn't easy.
"Finding that balance is hard," Lundqvist said. "But when you do find it, it's a good feeling. You feel like you are on your toes but you feel like you have awareness of the game."
That increased awareness isn't why Lundqvist has been spotted outside the blue ice more often this season. While he hasn't abandoned the goal line-out philosophy introduced to him by Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, Lundqvist has pushed out to, and sometimes past, the edges of his crease with increasing frequency the first two months this season.
"That's just something I talked to Benny about doing more," Lundqvist told NHL.com. "You have to respect the shot, especially when you have traffic, and that's what I have changed a little this year, to come out a bit more. You try to adjust your game, adapt. You analyze it and see what type of goals am I giving up and adjust to that, and over the years I have been in good control a lot but I have seen a lot of goals maybe from the point and deflections, and this year that has been a lot better because I am more on top of the crease for 'D' shots."
The downside was on display in a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, when Daniel Sedin redirected a slap pass from the point in from just above the goal line for the winning goal before Lundqvist, who challenged Alexander Edler as he wound up for a shot at the point, could recover back to his post.
"The downside is when they make plays like that, but that's the awareness again," Lundqvist said. "I talk with Benny about that all the time and he keeps reminding me to be aware."
If that's the tradeoff, it's worked pretty well so far. Lundqvist is 14-6-3 with a 1.99 goals-against average and leads NHL starters with a .938 save percentage.
While being near the top of the NHL goaltending statistics isn't new territory for the 33-year-old Lundqvist, getting there this early has been a challenge the past two seasons. He posted a .907 save percentage through the end of December two seasons ago and had a .911 save percentage after two months last season, ceding starts to then-backup Cam Talbot with performances well below his career average save percentage of .921.
So what else changed this season? Challenged by coach Alain Vigneault going into the summer to be better coming out of it, Lundqvist met with the Rangers sports psychologist.
"We talked about the biggest difference between the offseason and during the season and we came to the conclusion that during the season I think more about the game, I prepare more, and that's what I have to change going into training camp and get to that phase quicker," Lundqvist said. "That's what I changed and part of that is just visualizing a lot, thinking about my game, what I need to do so when I do get into game situations I just feel more prepared."
Allaire and Lundqvist altered their training camp routine to let Lundqvist prepare mentally.
"During the season you think a lot about your game and upcoming games and what to do and what not to do, so I spent more time during camp thinking like that before I started playing, and when I did start playing it felt more like I was 20 games in than just the first game," he said. "That made a big difference because technically and physically I always feel good coming into camp but the mental aspect, which is probably the most important aspect of a goalie's game, is one that you might forget sometimes."
Lundqvist hasn't forgotten it this season. Nor has he abandoned his pregame routine. It's just a little less intense now.
"I feel more relaxed this year," he said.